We are often in discussion with political departments recommending progress on energy. Recently DECC set up a consultation on new energy technologies and below is Weinberg Next Nuclear’s response where we advocate not only nuclear power but a sensible and sustainable diverse energy mix.
- How can legislation and enforcement frameworks help support new technologies and business models to encourage growth?
New technologies need security and a clear, fair entry to the market. If these are guaranteed, it is likely that the advantageous legislative conditions will encourage growth.
Security includes both funding and legislation. For renewables, changes to feed-in tariff rates have reduced confidence in the market and deterred investors. A long-term strategy on funding, incentives and taxes would limit such damage in future. Early decision on carbon budgets, representing a long-term signal of energy ambition, would also help increase confidence.
Firm regulation is essential, for public health, decarbonisation and environmental protection. However, regulation can also hold back innovation and act as a bottleneck by limiting technologies going through the regulatory process. This is especially true in nuclear regulation. The Office for Nuclear Regulation only carries out Generic Design Assessment for two designs at a time. This slows progress, deters investment and means that the energy market is not as competitive as it could or should be. This bottleneck should be removed, not by limiting safety checks, but by increasing resources to speed up the process and thus encourage growth.
- How is new technology likely to shape the energy sector?
The energy sector is facing a generation gap as old nuclear and coal plants go offline. Although existing technologies could fill this gap, it is an excellent opportunity to pursue new technologies. Advanced nuclear power has the potential to be a key technology to fill the energy supply gap as well as providing other services such as lessening the UK’s spent fuel and plutonium waste stockpile by using it as fuel. A variety of low-carbon technologies will be necessary in future but nuclear’s key advantages are that it is not intermittent and can produce industrial heat.
Successive governments have accepted the benefits of nuclear through their commitment to plans such as Hinkley point but new technologies have the potential to offer more benefits. Advanced generation 4 reactors can be even lower-carbon, have a reduced proliferation risk and waste output, and are passively safer, and with inbuilt safety, have the potential to be cheaper than conventional reactors. In addition, unlike the large scale, one-of-a-kind, reactors such as the European pressurised reactor at Hinkley, advanced reactors can be smaller and modular, meaning they can be mass-produced. These benefits are starting to be realised as shown by the Autumn statement announcement of £250 million to nuclear research and development.
Thus, in terms of shaping the energy sector, advanced nuclear could provide the potential for a rapid roll-out of low carbon plants, which can serve a variety of demand including small communities. The impacts of this roll-out could be greater energy security and self-sufficiency. It would allow a faster de-carbonisation of the energy sector and a better ability to meet climate change targets. With baseload power in place, there would also be potential for greater investment in existing and new intermittent renewable technologies. The development and deployment of advanced nuclear technologies would make possible the export of electricity, plus technology and expertise. In this way, Britain can regain its place as a leader in the nuclear sphere.
In contrast, it is important to recognise what is not going to shape the future energy mix of the UK. Fracking has been successful in certain areas of the world, but for a number of reasons, it is unlikely to be successful in the UK. The UK does not have large, empty land areas that could easily be turned over to industry. It also is unlikely to have significant fuel reserves due to its geology. Of the reserves it does have, there is unlikely to be enough that is economically recoverable to make a significant difference to the market.
- How can regulators better utilise new technologies to generate efficiency savings and reduce burdens on business?
The cost of energy is a concern for businesses and industry, as the recent steel crisis has shown. New technologies are often expensive. But it is important to see past the initial project costs. Economies of scale often means that new technologies deliver in the medium and long term.
A current example of this can be seen with the Swansea tidal lagoon, with a high strike price now but great potential to be replicated again at a much cheaper cost. Tidal lagoon technology and expertise could also to be exported overseas.
The same would true of advanced nuclear. Small modular reactors could be mass produced, so have the potential to deliver the benefits of nuclear at a lower cost and faster rate than existing developments. It is also important that the financial costs of energy be put within the context of environmental (in terms of air quality) and climate costs of the “cheaper” alternatives.